Required reading for copyeditors this week is an excerpt in The New Yorker from a new book by longtime New Yorker copyeditor Mary Norris. The 6,775-word excerpt is a tantalizing glimpse at Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, due out April 6. In the essay, Norris combines her personal history, impressions of The New Yorker, and some serious discussions of comma usage.
The marketing for the book suggests it will be “the most irreverent and helpful book on language since the #1 New York Times bestseller Eats, Shoots & Leaves.” While W. W. Norton & Co. would like it to generate the sales enjoyed by the Lynne Truss bestseller, I suspect the better comparison would be to the irreverent and helpful The Subversive Copy Editor.
In Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, Truss wrote a very funny book that took peavery to a new level and sometimes missed the mark on what is important in language. It seems that Norris would rather slow down for an extensive chat about comma usage in consecutive adjectives. In the end, she doesn't tell us right from wrong and urge us to take up our red markers and march out to correct people; she pours us more coffee and moves on to the next topic.
I have yet to read the book, but I nodded knowingly several times while reading the essay, such as when Norris speaks of copyediting as drawing a person's full breadth of knowledge. Or when she describes the difficulty of editing poor writers who do nothing technically wrong but fail to show a flair for good writing. Or when she expresses ambivalence over the serial comma and shares self-doubt about some of the rules she has embraced.
I plan to pick up a copy of Between You and Me next month. The first copies will be available at the American Copy Editors Society national conference, starting March 26 in Pittsburgh. Norris is scheduled to present a session that promises to “take attendees inside the hallowed walls of The New Yorker and explore Norris’ work with such celebrated writers as Philip Roth, Pauline Kael and George Saunders.”